William Herndon (lawyer)

William Herndon (lawyer)

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William Henry Herndon was the law partner and biographer of Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...



Born in Greensburg, Kentucky
Greensburg, Kentucky
Greensburg is a city in Green County, Kentucky, United States. The population was 2,396 at the 2000 census. It is the county seat of Green County...

, Herndon and his family moved to Illinois in 1820, and they settled in Springfield when he was five. Herndon attended Illinois College
Illinois College
Illinois College is a private, liberal arts college, affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church , and located in Jacksonville, Illinois. It was the second college founded in Illinois, but the first to grant a degree . It was founded in 1829 by the Illinois Band,...

 from 1836-1837. In 1840 he married Mary J. Maxey with whom he had six children. Mary Herndon died on August 18, 1860, and the following summer Herndon married Anna Miles with whom he had two more children.

Following college, he returned to Springfield, where he clerked until 1841, when he went into law practice with Lincoln. Both men were members of the Whig Party and joined the fledgling Republican Party after the dissolution of the Whigs. In 1858, Herndon conducted opposition research
Opposition research
Opposition research is:# The term used to classify and describe efforts of supporters or paid consultants of a political candidate to legally investigate the biographical, legal or criminal, medical, educational, financial, public and private administrative and or voting records of the opposing...

 in the Illinois State Library to be used against Stephen A. Douglas
Stephen A. Douglas
Stephen Arnold Douglas was an American politician from the western state of Illinois, and was the Northern Democratic Party nominee for President in 1860. He lost to the Republican Party's candidate, Abraham Lincoln, whom he had defeated two years earlier in a Senate contest following a famed...

 in the 1860 presidential race.

Herndon was a much stauncher opponent of slavery than Lincoln and claimed that he helped change Lincoln's views on the subject. He felt that Lincoln acted too slowly against the issue following his election as President. Herndon felt that the only way to rid the country of slavery was "through bloody revolution."

Herndon claimed that through the whole of his partnership and friendship with Lincoln he was never invited to Lincoln's home due to his contentious relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Ann Lincoln was the wife of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, and was First Lady of the United States from 1861 to 1865.-Life before the White House:...

. He also admitted that his frustration with Lincoln's overly permissive parenting of his two younger sons, Willie and Tad
Tad Lincoln
Thomas "Tad" Lincoln was the fourth and youngest son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. The nickname "Tad" was given to him by his father who found Thomas "as wriggly as a tadpole" when he was a baby. Tad was known to be impulsive, unrestrained, and did not attend school...

, who he recalled as undisciplined and disruptive brats in the law offices caused some harsh words during their partnership. His final meeting with Lincoln occurred in 1862 when he visited Washington, D.C., hoping to secure a presidential appointment as postmaster for the brother of his second wife. Lincoln received him amicably but he was not invited into the family's private quarters in the White House due to the enmity of Mary Lincoln.

Lincoln's biographer

Following Lincoln’s assassination, Herndon began to collect stories of Lincoln’s life from those who knew him. Herndon aspired to write a faithful portrait of his friend and law partner, based on his own observations and on hundreds of letters and interviews he had compiled for the purpose. He was determined to present Lincoln as a man, rather than a saint, and to reveal things that the prevailing Victorian era
Victorian era
The Victorian era of British history was the period of Queen Victoria's reign from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities and national self-confidence...

 conventions said should be left out of the biography of a great national hero. In particular, Herndon believed that Lincoln's "official" biographers, John Nicolay and John Hay
John Hay
John Milton Hay was an American statesman, diplomat, author, journalist, and private secretary and assistant to Abraham Lincoln.-Early life:...

, would tell the story of Lincoln "with the classes as against the masses."

Research strategy

Herndon’s research techniques of seeking out first hand interviews and information seem unremarkable today but were almost unheard of by 19th century biographical standard. The raw material for Herndon’s biography of Lincoln included correspondence, interviews, recollections, notes, newspaper clippings and other material.

Included in such primary material are an interview with Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Ann Lincoln was the wife of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, and was First Lady of the United States from 1861 to 1865.-Life before the White House:...

 in 1871, two long interviews with Dennis Hanks (Lincoln's cousin, who lived with Lincoln growing up), and hundreds of letters and notes from Herndon to Weik between 1 October 1881 and 27 February 1891, containing reminiscences of Lincoln's life.

Herndon also sought out and relied upon information from Lincoln's family members, schoolmates, neighbors in New Salem and Springfield, law partners, colleagues at the bar and in the Illinois legislature, political party allies, and White House associates. Representative names include Ninian Wirt Edwards (brother-in-law), Kate Roby Gentry (schoolmate), Mentor Graham (teacher), John Hay, whose letter of 5 September 1866 discusses Lincoln's daily life in the White House
White House
The White House is the official residence and principal workplace of the president of the United States. Located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., the house was designed by Irish-born James Hoban, and built between 1792 and 1800 of white-painted Aquia sandstone in the Neoclassical...

 and ends with the statement that he was "the greatest character since Christ
Christ is the English term for the Greek meaning "the anointed one". It is a translation of the Hebrew , usually transliterated into English as Messiah or Mashiach...

," John B. Helm (store clerk), Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln (stepmother), Stephen T. Logan
Stephen T. Logan
Stephen Trigg Logan was an American lawyer and politician.He practiced law with Abraham Lincoln from 1841 to 1843. He served as Illinois circuit court judge and in 1847 was elected to the Illinois Constitutional Conevention. He also served in the Illinois House of Representatives...

 (law partner), Leonard Swett
Leonard Swett
Leonard Swett was a civil and criminal lawyer who advised and assisted Abraham Lincoln throughout the president's political career.-Early life:...

 (lawyer), Frances Wallace (sister-in-law), and Robert L. Wilson (one of the "Long Nine," a group of tall Whigs, including Lincoln, who served together in the Illinois legislature in the 1830s).

Herndon’s research was organized by such headings as "Lincoln's Development," "Lincoln's Courtship with Miss Owens," "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates," "Miss Rutledge and Lincoln," and "Lincoln's Ways."

The book and later life

Herndon enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle well into middle age due to the successful law firm and his various elected and appointed offices. Unfortunately he suffered severe financial reversals after the Civil War due to bad investments, bank failures, excessive generosity to his relatives and friends, and his inability to economize when his income declined sharply.

By 1869, he was destitute and facing foreclosure on his home when Ward Hill Lamon
Ward Hill Lamon
Ward Hill Lamon was a personal friend and self-appointed bodyguard of the American President Abraham Lincoln. Lamon was famously absent the night Lincoln was assassinated, having been sent by Lincoln to Richmond, Virginia....

, who was then collaborating with a ghostwriter
A ghostwriter is a professional writer who is paid to write books, articles, stories, reports, or other texts that are officially credited to another person. Celebrities, executives, and political leaders often hire ghostwriters to draft or edit autobiographies, magazine articles, or other written...

 on a Lincoln biography, approached him for assistance. Herndon provided copies of and access to his original correspondences with Lincoln acquaintances and a written agreement not to publish his own biography of Lincoln for at least ten years in exchange for $2,000 cash and an agreement to receive up to $2000 of the book's royalties.). By the time he was free to release his own biography of Lincoln, a miscellany of personal problems, including continued financial problems and his alcoholism, left him unable to formulate the stacks of papers into a coherent text.

At some point in the late 1870s, Herndon began a correspondence with an Indiana-born Lincoln admirer named Jesse W. Weik
Jesse W. Weik
Jesse William Weik , was a collaborator with William Herndon in writing the first authoritative biography of Abraham Lincoln, published in 1889....

. By this time of his life, a growing number of Lincoln enthusiasts (including many like Weik who were children when Lincoln died) had written to Herndon seeking any type of Lincoln memorabilia, especially personal effects and autographs, and Herndon often obliged free of charge. When he supplied the young Weik with a Lincoln autograph from one of the stacks of legal documents in his possession, the grateful young man continued writing the old man and a friendship began that would result in the completion of the long-delayed Lincoln biography.

Weik, an aspiring writer, began to meet frequently with the elderly Herndon both at Herndon's farm north of Springfield and later at Weik's family's home in Greencastle, Indiana
Greencastle, Indiana
Greencastle is a city in Greencastle Township, Putnam County, Indiana, United States, and the county seat of Putnam County. It was founded in 1821 by Scots-Irish American Ephraim Dukes on a land grant. He named the settlement for his hometown of Greencastle, Pennsylvania...

, where Weik's father owned a general store and Herndon became a frequent guest. Herndon freely conceded that he was unable to complete the biography on his own and must have help if it was ever to reach fruition; thus he helped the worshipful young Weik by supplying his materials and providing constant clarification and elaboration on his own memories of Lincoln. The collaboration between the two men was often contentious due to extreme creative differences in writing style and in their visions of what type of biography should result; Weik favored a narrative linear form while Herndon wanted essentially a loosely connected volume of reminiscences grouped by type such as domestic life, law practice, political philosophy, etc.. However, the two persisted due to a recognition of their complete dependence on each other. Weik depended on Herndon for the source materials and first person accounts of Lincoln, and Herndon on Weik for the energy of creating the manuscript and increasingly for financial support, which guaranteed their continued relationship.

Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, the result of their collaborations, appeared in a three volume edition published by Belford, Clarke & Company in 1889. The majority of the actual writing was done by Weik, who received full credit as co-author. The book received wildly mixed reviews due to the inclusion of such unvarnished elements as Lincoln's mother's illegitimacy (and even the rumors of Lincoln's own), its sometimes viciously negative portrayal of Herndon's longtime enemy Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's suicidal depression, and other decidedly less than hagiographic accounts of the martyred president who was quickly becoming the most venerated and romanticized figure in American history.

Particularly damning was the denunciation of the book by Robert Todd Lincoln
Robert Todd Lincoln
Robert Todd Lincoln was an American lawyer and Secretary of War, and the first son of President Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln...

, whose grudge against Herndon stemmed largely from Herndon's recounting of Ann Rutledge as the only romantic love of his father's life. Questionable business practices and financial reversals on the part of the book's publishers, combined with the book's poor initial sales, made the royalties of its two authors very meager, with most of Herndon's share going to repay the frequent small loans advanced to him by Weik.

Herndon died in 1891 in near poverty at his farm north of Springfield. At the time of his death, the majority of his Lincoln source materials and correspondences were in the possession of his coauthor Jesse Weik, whose family would keep them for fifty more years. Herndon is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery
Oak Ridge Cemetery
Oak Ridge Cemetery is a cemetery located in Springfield, Illinois in the United States.Lincoln's Tomb, which serves as the final resting place of Abraham Lincoln, his wife and all but one of his children, is located at Oak Ridge...

 in Springfield, the same cemetery as the Lincoln Tomb
Lincoln Tomb
Lincoln's Tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois, is the final resting place of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and three of their four sons. The monument is owned and administered by the State of Illinois as Lincoln Tomb State...



"Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life," William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik (1889)

Letters: (1) William H. Herndon to Jesse W. Weik, Jan. 16, 1886, Herndon-Weik Collection, Library of Congress; and (2) Mary Todd Lincoln to David Davis, Mar. 6, [1867], "Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters," ed. Justin G. Turner and Linda Leavitt Turner (1972)

"The Abraham Lincoln Genesis Cover-up: The Censored Origins of an Illustrious Ancestor," R. Vincent Enlow, [relating Herndon's accounts] http://genealogytoday.com/us/lincoln/genesis.html (2001)

"Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln," Abraham Lincoln, Ed. Roy P. Basler (1953): 15 Feb 1848 Letter from Lincoln to Herndon

External links